Rivington and Blackrod High School has developed various ways to engage and respond to student voice — not least of which involves students giving staff feedback on teaching processes. The school is also involved in an LEA-wide initiative to promote collaborative leadership at a student level

Ingrid Cox, Deputy Principal, Rivington and Blackrod High School, Bolton

Time is right

In 2002, a number of issues emerged at Rivington and Blackrod High School, at a time when it seemed fortuitous to bring them all together. Staff morale in the history, geography and religious studies departments was at a low ebb, there was a new head of Year 10/11, the school had embarked on creating a new cross-school assessment process, I had met Jean Rudduck from Cambridge University’s Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP), ‘Consulting pupils about teaching and learning’ project (for more details, see: www.consultingpupils.co.uk).

As a result of this, the school was given the opportunity to apply for a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) under their ‘Breaking new ground’ project. At the same time, the work of the Bolton Pastoral Network was beginning to expand with a growing recognition that pupils needed to be consulted about their learning. Begun in 1998, the Network became a Networked Learning Community (NLC) in 2003 and involves all 16 of the secondary schools within Bolton LEA.

Staff wanted to embark on a piece of practitioner research that they knew could make a difference — to them, to their students, to improve learning within classrooms – and hopefully impact on student GCSE results. So the ‘Breaking new ground’ research group decided to test its theory that ‘You can set targets for students, but unless they are willing to go the extra mile and take them on board, no target-setting will be totally effective’. The group of six teachers — an assistant head, head of year, two department heads, and two assistant heads of department — believed that unless pupils were fully involved in the process, the school would never get the full ‘value added’ that statisticians talk about and that improves school results.

All staff received various types of promotion following the period of the research.

Called the ‘Power of nine’, after the number of students involved, the group set about exploring pupil perceptions of the school’s newly established assessment process. The initial research prepared the way for what has now become a borough-wide student voice movement entitled BLAST (Bolton Listens As Students Talk), under the NLC banner.

Bolton Pastoral Network Project

One of the aims of the Bolton Pastoral Network is to empower students as leaders of their own learning, to encourage independent learning and to play a part in the development of a student forum — Bolton Listens As Students Talk (BLAST) — across Bolton’s secondary schools in particular. So our initial action research project into student voice became part of a much larger project focused on developing student leadership opportunities within schools, between schools and across all schools in the borough. Specific objectives included to:

  • encourage the use of BLAST as a student voice forum in Bolton that facilitates communication between service providers and their ‘clients’
  • explore how the concept of distributed leadership might apply to students as well as adults
  • explore and develop what emotional intelligent leadership looks like for adults and students in Bolton’s schools.


BLAST is the umbrella for all of Bolton’s pupil collaborative activity. Students come together annually across primary and secondary sectors to share learning with each other. Students are responsible for holding up to 30 workshops at these conferences and learn ‘from and with each other’ according to true networked learning community principles. They then take back to their own schools good practice from other schools, growing Bolton’s capacity to promote collaborative leadership at a student level.

In June 2003, the NLC held its first pupil voice conference, attended by 300 local secondary school pupils. Similar conferences under the heading BLAST have been hosted annually within the network and have served as a platform for a range of other agencies to consult and engage with young people in the locality. With the ultimate aim of raising pupil attainment, the schools visited during this inquiry are seeking to engage pupils in the processes of learning and ‘making a positive contribution’ — one of the outcomes from the Every child matters framework (DfES, 2005, see: www.everychildmatters.gov.uk/publications), through partnerships within and beyond their own schools.

The first student voice conference saw the launch of the NLC’s student voice project. Students enjoyed a space for networking over lunchtime in addition to attending workshops. Students were invited individually to write down the things at school that they were least happy about and would like to change. They were then asked to write down on ‘stickies’ the reverse of those things. Next, they were invited to screw up the first — negative — list and throw it in a large box at the front of the room. The positive stickies they were invited to place on a ‘learning wall’ that had been set up using flipchart paper at the back of the room.

The workshop topics included:

  • coursework
  • taking charge of learning
  • peer pressure
  • remotivation.

The discussion groups were lively but controlled and groups were quick to agree protocols to ensure that everyone had a chance to be heard. By the end of the session the flipcharts were full of comments, ideas and proposed actions, and summary sheets had been completed and collected for analysis.

Workshop responses were collected, learning wall comments collated and a number of stands highlighted services that students could access. At the end of the conference, the students were invited to book an appointment through the school secretary to meet as a group with their own headteacher as soon as possible. They would describe what had happened at the conference, how it made them feel to be part of BLAST, and how they would like to help support learning in the school.

This initial conference had been planned by adults who had consulted with a small group of students from one school. The general consensus was that in future students should plan and, where possible, run their own conferences.

At each conference students are given the opportunity to complete various questionnaires, contribute to the learning wall, offer support and advice for others, and give personal feedback to the whole conference via a roving microphone. The information collected is collated and distributed to each school and forms the basis for the starter activity for the next conference. Once termly meetings of focus students (two per key stage per school) have become embedded in practice, we will be able to shape more immediate intervention in networking links.

Early findings from BLAST

Students have been involved in consultation and participation around the Healthy Schools agenda and have already noted that emotional competency and wellbeing are as important as curriculum areas. As one Year 9 student put it: ’If the barriers between student and teachers can be broken down then stress will be decreased and we will learn’. Students believe in their democratic right to be involved in the decisions that currently people make for them; they are loyal to their schools and want to enhance their school’s reputation and standing in the community. They have a vision of how they want schools to be and how they want their roles to be proactive: ‘We may be small, but we are mighty’.

The local authority’s ‘future search’ forum — a group of educational professionals drawn together by their common desire to present a constructive way forward for Every child matters (DfES, 2005) — has chosen to involve pupils to ensure that any action that follows takes into account the opinions and ideas of the most important ‘stakeholders’ — young people themselves. Future Search is an interactive planning process used worldwide in diverse cultures to achieve shared goals and fast action. In September 2005, the group ran a conference to look at how to create a future for Bolton when every child did matter, involving students, parents, carers and families, education (including headteachers, school staff and governors), council, and children’s services representatives. Students helped to plan the conference, and also took it on themselves to establish a blog site, where people attending the conference, as well as members of the public far and wide, could collect opinions, reflect on the conference and network with one another. To see some of the comments posted, log on to: http://boltonfuturesearch.blogspot.com

As a result, the Bolton pastoral NLC has made considerable progress in changing the local culture and attitudes around the necessity and value of fully engaging with young people, particularly in the context of the Every child matters agenda (DfES, 2005).

A voice through mentoring

Because of a lack of staff available to take on an additional mentoring role, two years ago we decided to take a more innovative approach and began to use pupils as mentors for each other to promote pupils as leaders of learning as well as the staff. Pupils and staff were trained by Manchester Metropolitan University in action learning techniques and form period time was allocated to pupils to form their own action learning sets. This enabled staff to be freed up and they were able to pinpoint individual pupil needs.

Pupils reflected on their work and progress during the previous week, identified work streams, problems and sources of support for themselves. Pupils were able to challenge each other about reasons for lack of progress and failure to comply with coursework deadlines as well as discussing how to resolve conflicts with staff and pressures with siblings and parents. It enabled them to help each other address their own problems in learning, such as conflicts with staff, completing coursework, understanding what to do next and then knowing how to execute that. As students promised each other about their weekly targets, we began to see more commitment to learning, and realistic appraisals of problems and solutions.

In striving for excellence, schools will ignore pupils at their peril. The transformation of education begins and ends with our school leaders: adults and student leaders have a role in building our schools of the future. Too frequently adults are loath to give students a voice if they feel they do not have their own voice. How far this is a more contentious issue than student leadership needs investigating. The current findings of the Bolton Pastoral Network are optimistic: they point to the fact that if we engage our student leaders they will not fail us, or themselves. We just need to let them start to lead, to listen to their views and work with them as equal partners in building schools where adults and students alike are proud to be working.

Ingrid Cox, Deputy Principal, Rivington and Blackrod High School, Bolton

If you would like to learn more about the current work and engage in network-to-network learning spaces with Bolton Pastoral Network contact Ingrid Cox, tel: 01204 333266, fax: 01204 333264.

Rivington and Blackrod High School is an 11–18 2,000 pupil school in Bolton. It is a split site school with the lower school site being newly physically linked to a local primary school: the Pathways Centre now provides accommodation and shared facilities for staff as well as students in the centre of Horwich. The upper site is situated one mile away and houses Years 8–13. The school draws its intake of pupils from nine local feeder primary schools as well as more than 30 other feeder schools across Bolton. We have 1,584 11–16 students, and 325 post-16. A total of 9.8% of our students have free school meals. In 2005, 50% of pupils achieved five or more A*–C grades at GCSE level.